Thursday, January 29, 2009

What is a Skeptic?

There's been some discussion on the email list about the name of our group, and I'd like to throw in my two cents here.

To say that someone is a skeptic does not say much about that person's religious beliefs, or lack thereof. In fact, it may be that religion is the farthest thing from that person's mind. As an atheist, I lack belief in a god or gods. But that can be a pretty boring topic of conversation time and time again. Morally, I align myself with much of secular humanism, but I'd rather do good things than talk about what is good. No, I was never so great at philosophy.

Skepticism, for me, is a whole other ball game. To be a skeptic is to challenge and question everything, whether it be belief in a god, talking to ghosts, alternative medicine, or a new product that is being sold on a television commercial. Every person uses a bit of skepticism when making every day decisions, and everyone can stand to use a bit more. For this reason, I think that to be a skeptic is the most practical way to be, and that skepticism is actually the most inclusive term. Anyone can apply observation and critical thinking skills to a problem, even if it does take time to hone those skills. A person armed with a "baloney detection kit" at all times is acting as a skeptic. Most of us will have our skeptical alarm bells set off if a stranger in a parking lot offers to hold our purse while we load groceries into our car. My skeptical alarm will surely sound whenever I hear a claim for diet pills or magnetic therapy. Most people will balk if you tell them that the Virgin Mary appeared on your grilled cheese sandwich. Skeptics are the ones with the answer when someone asks, "What's the harm in believing?"

Skeptics aren't just curmudgeonly naysayers, either. Most that I've met have a deep appreciation for science, and the wonderful ways in which our universe works. For them, reality is enough to explore. There is no need for the "supernatural." Look at all the fabulous things we can learn through evidence and reason! For example, every atom in your body, that is not hydrogen or helium, was formed in the core of a massive star many billions of years ago, or in the explosive aftermath that marked its death, called a supernova. In the words of one of the greatest skeptics of the modern age, and one of my personal heroes, Carl Sagan, "The Earth and every living thing are made of star stuff." I highly recommend Sagan's Demon Haunted World to anyone for an introduction into Sagan's thought processes, and I have a copy that is available to borrow!

So, I guess that's why I'm happy with the name Skeptics' Group, or Skeptics' Society, or CVille Skeptics, or Skeptical Badasses, whatever sounds coolest. It's a positive way of saying, "we're a thinking bunch of people, and nothing is safe from our rational approach to life!"

I'd also encourage you to check out a longer article, "What is Skepticism?" by Sam Ogden over at Skepchick. It talks abut skepticism as a handy-dandy toolkit for investigating claims, whether it be everyday or not-so-ordinary, and how it is like "science express."

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Goat detained over armed robbery

This news item from Reuters probably prompts laughter, but it should also prompt some concern.
LAGOS (Reuters) - Police in Nigeria are holding a goat on suspicion of attempted armed robbery.

Vigilantes took the black and white beast to the police saying it was an armed robber who had used black magic to transform himself into a goat to escape arrest after trying to steal a Mazda 323.

"The group of vigilante men came to report that while they were on patrol they saw some hoodlums attempting to rob a car. They pursued them. However one of them escaped while the other turned into a goat," Kwara state police spokesman Tunde Mohammed told Reuters by telephone.

"We cannot confirm the story, but the goat is in our custody. We cannot base our information on something mystical. It is something that has to be proved scientifically, that a human being turned into a goat," he said.

Belief in witchcraft is widespread in parts of Nigeria, Africa's most populous nation. Residents came to the police station to see the goat, photographed in one national newspaper on its knees next to a pile of straw.

We skeptics are fighting an uphill battle against the most ridiculous superstitions. This alone is difficult, but we also have the additional problem of convincing "moderate" types who dismiss the skeptical position as patronizing, dogmatic, or even religious. Emphasizing stories like these can probably sway lots of those people. What's the Harm? is a good site for more fodder like this.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Seen at Barnes & Noble:

At first I assumed it's just kind of a gift-type item; sort of just for a giggle.

Then I realized, maybe not? I just can't fathom that someone would take a bible hunting (and also need that bible to be invisible by deer), so perhaps it's for fashion? Why take a plain old brown bible to church, show everyone you are a hunter with your camo bible!

Yes, I will whip out my camera at Barnes & Noble in the name of blogging. :-)

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Life on Mars?

NASA announced today the discovery of plumes of methane cropping up over various spots of the Martian surface. Such a phenomenon is most likely caused by recent geological or biological activity. Either one would be scientifically interesting, but to find microbial life living on Mars right now would have a huge impact on how we view our existence as a species. Is life so common that it independently sprang up on adjacent planets? Did one planet "seed" the other with life? How tenacious is life, and how well can it survive is seemingly inhospitable environments?

Methane out gassing on the Red Planet has been puzzling planetary scientists for some time. Today we find that there is more of it that was expected, and that the abundances change with the seasons. Read more about this story from, some of my favorite bloggers: AstroEngine, SpaceWriter, SarahAskew, and Universe Today. Don't forget, of course, the official NASA press release!

Let's not get ahead of ourselves, now. Remember, in 1996, images of possible microbes in a sample of Martian rock (ALH84001) captured the public imagination. Today, after extensive testing of the samples, most scientists are convinced that the structures are non-biological in nature. So although the possibilities are tantalizing, we must remember to ground ourselves in science and be very thorough before making sweeping conclusions.

There is still a lot of science to be done and great results to discover, even if they aren't paradigm shattering. Hopefully, these areas of methane enhancement will be targets for future rovers and landers.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Monday, January 12, 2009

Podcast alert

UVA Astronomy Professor Ed Murphy with the top 8 space stories of 2008


Does religion make you nice?

I just wanted to post a link to this brief but very interesting article on, "Does Religion Make You Nice."

The end is particularly poignant. The author notes that Danes and Swedes are particularly happy countries despite their rampant godlessness, but also points out that they still attend church (they just don't believe in God.) This points to the importance of community.

"American atheists, by contrast, are often left out of community life. The studies that Brooks cites in Gross National Happiness, which find that the religious are happier and more generous then the secular, do not define religious and secular in terms of belief. They define it in terms of religious attendance. It is not hard to see how being left out of one of the dominant modes of American togetherness can have a corrosive effect on morality. ...

"The sorry state of American atheists, then, may have nothing to do with their lack of religious belief. It may instead be the result of their outsider status within a highly religious country where many of their fellow citizens, including very vocal ones like Schlessinger, find them immoral and unpatriotic. Religion may not poison everything, but it deserves part of the blame for this one."

This highlights the importance, then, of groups like The Cville Skeptics! And it also gives some value to the possible group motto of "A church for the rest of us," which I couldn't decide if it was appropriate or not. ha!

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Molecule self-replicates in lab


"Obviously what we're trying to do is make a biology," says Gerald Joyce, a biochemist at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California. He hopes to imbue his team's molecule with all the fundamental properties of life: self-replication, evolution, and function.

Whole story:

Photo credit

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Reminder: Social Hour Jan. 22!

Click here to join & RSVP!

Book Club Proposal

Greetings! I recently read a couple reviews of Eric Maisel's new book, The Atheist's Way and thought it would make a great book club selection.

A tidbit from Maisel's blog:
A charmingly apt anonymous saying: “Atheism is a non-prophet organization.” Therefore each atheist must make his or her own way. The very essence of making personal meaning is nominating yourself as the hero of your own story and making your own way in life, listening for echoes in the observations of others but never following in another person’s footsteps. Your circumstances are unique; your causes are yours to choose; one day you can play, one day you can be serious, one day you can rest, one day you can exhaust yourself. Make your own way: even the slightest pull to follow opens the door to mischief.

If we get at least 10 people interested, that would be a viable number to declare a book club. Moreover, if folks are interested, we can arrange to have a free telechat with the author!

If you're interested in joining the book club, e-mail cvilleskeptics (at) gmail (dot) com. (let me know if you'd rather just read the book or read the book and do the telechat).

If you'd like to start a book club but with a DIFFERENT title, email me that too!

Friday, January 2, 2009

Is "Dear Abby" a skeptic!?

Well I've read enough of her column to surmise that, at the very least, she regularly panders to the religious, but this particular response made me say Woah!

DEAR ABBY: I have a "pennies from heaven" story you might appreciate. My best friend, "Darrel," was a smoker who collected quarters. His apartment had two distinguishing features -- stacks of quarters and the smell of secondhand smoke. Because we were both busy people, we had seen each other only twice in about a year, but maintained a phone and e-mail friendship.

I had planned a trip out west to spend time with family and had e-mailed him about it. Unbeknownst to me, Darrel had been very ill, and he died the day I sent the e-mail. I learned about it while I was in transit to my destination. There was nothing I could do. I had no way to get to his funeral and no way to say goodbye.

When we reached our hotel -- part of a smoke-free chain -- my husband and I opened the door to our room and were greeted by a familiar odor. It smelled just like Darrel's apartment! And when I walked to the dresser to unpack, two quarters were sitting on top. It was then that my husband and I agreed that Darrel had stopped to say goodbye on his way to heaven. -- QUARTERS FROM HEAVEN

DEAR QUARTERS: Please accept my sympathy for the loss of your friend. I'm glad you received some comfort in your time of need. However, it's entirely possible that the guest who occupied the room before you broke the rules and puffed away in a room that was supposed to be nonsmoking. I hope you notified the front desk so you could be switched to other accommodations, and the room could be thoroughly cleaned and deodorized to prevent someone with a sensitivity to smoke from walking in and experiencing a severe allergic reaction.

Thursday, January 1, 2009